Many adults struggle with setting boundaries in their closest relationships, but when lines need to be drawn with your aging parents or loved ones, it can be even more of a challenge. Whether you’re caring for an aging loved one, helping extended family during hard times or just trying to navigate changing relationship dynamics as you get married, have kids and go about your adult lives, concerns about hurting your parents’ feelings or not living up to expectations can get in the way.
As a partner or spouse, it’s easy to feel helpless when you see these challenges playing out between your partner and their aging parents. Unfortunately, failing to set boundaries with family can often lead to stress and struggle in your marriage or relationship behind closed doors. “It’s not uncommon for couples to be in therapy, not for their own marital issues, but for help with how they navigate family of origin issues,” says Merlelynn Harris, a marriage and family therapist and the director of Bridge Counseling in Las Vegas, Nevada.
Here, she and other experts explain what to do when your partner’s struggles with family boundaries put a strain on your relationship and how to help them get through it.
Why people struggle to set boundaries with aging parents
Harris says there are hundreds of reasons why a family may not have particularly healthy boundaries.
Sometimes, people may not have previously been in a situation where they felt a need to create new boundaries with a parent or loved one. Things often change when a grandchild comes into the picture or if an adult child is suddenly or unexpectedly placed in a caregiving role for a loved one. “Regretfully,” Harris adds, “people don’t often realize that something’s wrong until they’re already in a stressful, painful or uncomfortable situation.”
This was the case for Hana LaRock of Jersey City. In January, LaRock’s grandfather died of COVID-19 and her brother suffered a serious stroke. Just a few weeks later, in February, her husband’s father died, leaving behind a wife and two other young sons. Both LaRock and her husband quickly stepped up to support and care for their family members, with Max immediately striving to fill his late father’s shoes.
Eventually, LaRock realized her husband was taking on too much, and she needed more support from him as well. “I had to stage kind of an intervention to encourage my husband to take a step back, not from loving his family and spending time with them, but from all of the work he was doing,” LaRock explains. “We had to set boundaries in terms of how often he’d see his family, how often I’d see mine and how we’d still have time for ourselves and each other.”
Boundary issues can also arise because of unhealthy relationships between parents and their adult children. Setting boundaries can be especially difficult if that hasn’t traditionally been a part of the relationship in the past, Harris says.
Understanding why people struggle to set boundaries may help you be more empathetic towards your partner. Harris offers the following as examples of why people may find boundaries more challenging:
- Having a more laidback temperament.
- Feeling guilty or like they owe something to their parents.
- Being the only family member able to care for a loved one.
- Parentification, or being given too much adult responsibility in childhood.
- Childhood trauma.
- Having a dysfunctional family in which personal boundaries are undefined.
Why it’s so important to set boundaries
Bianca Kamhi, an accountability coach and the creator of Living With Bianca, who works with individuals and professional groups on setting boundaries, improving productivity and building healthy habits, says boundaries are crucial because they set the basic guidelines for how you want to be treated, and this ultimately helps people have better and more fulfilling relationships. “Setting clear personal boundaries is the key to ensuring relationships are mutually respectful, supportive and caring,” she explains.
According to Harris, when clear boundaries aren’t in place, it can lead to burnout, stress and conflict, not only between adult children and aging parents, but also between them and their spouse. “It can be very polarizing,” Harris says. “They have to really decide how to prioritize the necessary boundaries, how to communicate them in love and how to communicate them to their families in a manner that’s understandable.”
How to talk to your partner when there’s a boundary problem with older loved ones
If your partner’s relationship with their parent or aging loved one is putting a strain on your relationship, it’s important to talk about it, Harris says. The way you start that discussion and how you handle the conversation is equally important. Here are some tips for talking about family boundaries in a way that is productive, loving and supportive.
Set a specific time to talk
The time to have a conversation about boundaries is not when you’re both getting ready for work in the morning or as an ambush as soon as your partner gets off their phone with their dad. Instead, let them know you’d like to set a time to connect and talk without distractions. “Approach the conversation in a time of peace and coming from a place of care,” Harris says.
Don’t place blame
Ask open-ended questions and avoid making accusations or expressing negativity about your partner’s loved one. “If a couple is going to have a difficult conversation, but that conversation is coming from a place of love and not a place of judgment or criticism, it’s a lot easier to hear,” Harris says. “If my partner comes in and he’s like, ‘Oh my gosh, your mother is such a nag,’ that’s going to be really hard for me to hear.”
According to Harris, some supportive ways to start the boundary conversation might include:
- “I love your mom, but I’m noticing she’s giving a lot of unsolicited input in our relationship. Can we sit down and talk about this?”
- “I love you, and I’m worried about you. I’m noticing your level of exhaustion. Can we talk about what’s causing that?”
- “I’m seeing the emotional impact this situation with your dad is having on you. Can we brainstorm some solutions together to work on that?”
Give them examples
You should approach your partner with kindness, Kahmi says, but you also need to be direct and specific about your concerns. “Present them with examples and scenarios of when you have felt that boundaries have been crossed previously and provide them with alternative examples of how you wish they had handled it instead,” she explains.
Normalize their concerns
Setting boundaries is difficult, and your partner isn’t alone if they struggle with this. “Nervousness or anxiousness towards creating a boundary is completely normal,” Harris says. “Not all of us were raised with the value of healthy boundaries, so now this potential circumstance in which I’m going to have to say ‘no’ to someone to whom I’ve always said ‘yes’ is naturally going to be anxiety provoking.”
She recommends practicing empathy with your partner and allowing them to openly discuss their fears and hesitations, rather than minimizing their worries or shaming them for their lack of boundaries.
Helping your partner set healthy boundaries
Since not everyone grows up practicing setting boundaries, your partner may not necessarily understand what a healthy boundary looks like. While you can’t be the one to step in and set boundaries for them, you can help guide and support them through the process of creating their own boundaries.
Here are five tips from the experts for how to set healthy boundaries:
Don’t use shame. Draw a line for what behaviors are acceptable without resorting to guilt or shame, says Harris. For example, if the aging parent wants to drive their grandkids somewhere, but you know their driving ability is impaired, you might say to them: “Dad, I love you so much, but after you take your medication, you’re not going to be driving with your grandchildren. You can spend time with them, but we’re not giving you the keys for the car.”
Be firm. “Use words like ‘non-negotiable’ or ‘this cannot be a debate’ to ensure that you will not allow a back-and-forth communication to alter your initial intent in creating the boundary,” Kamhi says. “Setting boundaries can’t be a roundabout process, especially when the boundaries are already crossed.”
Stay on the same team. “Discuss the boundary as something that will improve your relationship and will allow you both to grow, rather than push the two of you apart,” Kahmi says.
Remind your loved one that you’re setting a boundary because you love them, want to remain close with them and want to make sure you are both able to communicate your needs and feelings.
Know your limits. Sometimes the boundary that needs to be set is that you simply can’t meet your parent’s expectations, as a caregiver or in other instances. If you’re in this situation, Harris says to ask yourself:
- What are my limits?
- What is my level of capacity?
- What am I feeling and needing?
“If you’re caring for a parent and what you’re doing is not within your bandwidth or skillset, that could actually have a damaging impact on the relationship with the parent,” Harris adds. “Tell them, ‘I love you so much, and I want to make sure that you are treated really, really well. I don’t know that I’m the best one for that job.’”
Don’t be afraid to ask for help. If boundaries are a big problem for you or your partner, and you have the resources to seek outside help, like a therapist or counselor, that may be beneficial. “Seek out individuals who can really support the position you’re coming from,” Harris says. “Perhaps even try role-playing how to be assertive, respectful and kind, but still be self-respecting in that process.”
If setting boundaries feels awkward and uncomfortable at first, keep trying. Talk about it in ways that are empathetic and caring, but don’t just drop the conversation and expect things will get better. “Be as kind as possible, but don’t let your boundary requests change,” Kamhi says. ”Kindness shows much more power and strength than anything else.”